Eriq La Salle Goes "25 to Life"

As an actor, Eriq La Salle went from playing Eddie Murphy's jheri-curled adversary in the comedy "Coming to America" to starring in the award winning television drama "ER" to directing episodes of such shows as "CSI: NY" and "Law & Order: SVU." Now, he's heading to prison - figuratively speaking, of course - with his new miniseries from 12 Gauge Comics, "25 to Life."

The three-issue series will explore the idea of an experimental FBI division that partners elite agents with 25-to-life sentenced criminals in "Silence of the Lambs"-esque fashion in order to solve high profile cases. In this particular instance, the gruesome murder of three African American police officers force Special Agent Gabriel Santana to team with the racist white supremacist Pratt, currently serving a life sentence for his terrible crimes. As expected, tensions raise rather quickly as neither men find themselves none too fond of the other. Written by La Salle and Doug Wagner, the title features art by Tony Shasteen and heads to comic shops in September.

In an exclusive first interview, La Salle spoke with CBR News about his journey into the comic book world, the terrifying similarities between those who defend the law and those who break it and how his experience in acting gave him an insight into the criminal mind.

CBR News: Eriq, before we get into the details of the title, I've got to ask, how did you get involved with this project? You've done acting, directing; what made you decide to come into comics?

Eriq La Salle: At my company, Humble Journey Films, we were always trying to push the envelope, [asking] "What's the best ways to get stories told." We just want to tell stories. That's why I became an actor - because I love telling stories. The longer I've been in the business, the various avenues I started exploring - directing, producing, writing - this just became another great avenue, particularly for this genre of story that we had. Once that idea came out, we ran with it.

I'm always into new challenges and [comics] is a world that's relatively new to me. Keven Gardner has actually taught me really 85 percent of what I know about the world. It's been this really cool thing of, along with working on this project, learning about the world. Because it's really about respecting the world. A lot of times, people come from different worlds and they think it's supposed to work their way, the way it used to work. I really want to know, what are the sensibilities of the comic world and how are things done and what is the most effective way, because there are subtle differences and overt differences between the film world and the comic world. At the end of the day, everybody wants to tell a good story, so there are certain things that definitely translate and hold true, but the way you go about doing it is either slightly different or vastly different. So, it's a challenge, but I'm having a ball with it. I think it's the perfect fit for this particular project and I'm really into it.

As we know, the story focuses on a special crimes division that teams agents with convicted criminals to solve cases similar in nature to the crime they committed. What about this idea appeals to you?

Some of the best things about telling stories, it's really about what is the theme, what are the subtleties, what are the things you're really trying to get across. In this world, we are able to explore the often-uncomfortable parallel between criminals and law enforcement. A lot of times, the cops that can think most like criminals are the most successful. Here, we have criminals coming into contact and participating with law enforcement, and we see how that affects them. It keeps raising the stakes of the story, and I find those types of stories most compelling - not when you're dealing with one element, but [when] you're dealing with a myriad of things. There's a big crime scene they're investigating, but there is also the subtle relationship that these guys have to endure with each other, which is a lot times problematic, a lot of times contentious, a lot of times humorous. Those are the things I think contribute to compelling storytelling.

It's interesting you say that, because there is that idea that while everyone has dark thoughts, the difference between a normal person and a criminal is that the criminal acts on it. It's kind of scary to think how close we all are to being a criminal.

Exactly. Who crosses that line and who walks that line? I think law enforcement, a lot of times walks that line, because violence is a part of their world. You're always supposed to be contained and restrained. Whereas criminals a lot of times are sociopaths and do what they want to do. It just adds a lot of interesting elements, and I like that dangerous element of it. We all basically have criminals within our beings, and most people, most healthy people, have found a way to suppress those urges and impulses and actions. This is a world where everybody is doing what they want to do and the cops are trying to solve a high stakes crime by working with people they not only detest, but that they helped put behind bars. There's a dilemma, because you're almost making a deal with the devil. This person is thinking, "I put him in jail and now I'm going to help him get out of jail earlier so that he can help me put someone else in jail." It's a vicious cycle, but necessary.

What can you say about the main character in this title?

Without giving away too much, he is the perfect agent for this new experimental wing of the FBI, not just because of his prowess and success as an agent, but personally, he is a tortured soul. This guy is literally to the point of becoming a criminal himself. He is the closest thing to a criminal that is legal. He does things his way. He understands consequences and all that, but he always puts the case above everything. He's one of those guys where the ends justifies the means. He has got some really dark things based on his relationship with his father, who actually is a criminal. So, he is really tortured in the sense that he has this really dysfunctional relationship with a father who used to be a great law enforcement guy who cracked. So, he's also dealing with a ticking clock of, "Will I have that same gene? Will I one day crack?" He's like a Bruce Banner type character. He knows he has this beast in him and it's a ticking clock. There's a fear that one day it's going to come out, but in the meantime, he's using everything he has for good and righteousness. It's a really fascinating character because of those elements.

What about the criminal side of the equation?

We came up with a ton of crimes when we were mapping this thing out and asking what were the legs of the franchise. We came up with a ton of stories, but the one we wanted to start with was something that really put these two fascinating characters in proximity with each other. And they are so polarized on so many levels, not just the obvious law versus crime - ethnically, philosophically, a guy with white supremacist views and a guy who is African American. It's "Silence of the Lambs" meets "48 Hours" meets "The Defiant Ones." Those are all references that were very successful in their own right. With our criminal, we like elevating the intelligence of the criminal because that makes the protagonist that much smarter. A lot of people, when they tell stories, the criminals are so dumb. But Anthony Hopkins was an amazing criminal who elevated Jodie Foster's character, because she had to be smart in order to hang with that brilliant guy. If you look at it from that point of view, [the criminal in this story] isn't just some stupid hick that you just dismiss as being a racist. This guy is clever, he's cunning, he's a great adversary for our protagonist.

As an actor, you've inserted yourself into many different roles - some good guys, some bad guys. Does being an actor and portraying characters that vary on the moral scale help you write a story like this and delve into the mind of these characters?

Well, the first rule that you're taught in acting class is that you don't judge your character. You don't define your character as good or bad. What you do is you try and justify your character and try to justify your character's actions because there are a lot of people in this world that do some horrible things, but they don't see themselves as horrible people. They felt that what they were doing was necessary and justified. So, I don't create characters to say that he's a bad guy. I create a character who is trying to justify something that we may disagree with, but there is a logic. Even sometimes when there is a twisted logic, it has to be a logic nonetheless. So, we never say, "He's the bad guy." He certainly doesn't see himself as the bad guy, and that is a direct response to my training as an actor and everything that I know about storytelling. They make for much more multi-dimensional characters. Anthony Hopkins didn't see himself a depraved cannibal. He had purpose in his actions and he felt he was justified in doing those things. That's just been a point of view of storytelling that has serviced my company well and serviced me as an actor when I take on a role. When you have a supremacist versus an African American, the supremacist, from his point of view, sees thing a certain ways. Their logic makes sense on a certain level, it's just criminal. I see how this person came to that conclusion, it's a twisted conclusion, but there is a certain logic there. That to me, is the greatest challenge, when you can get the audience to admit that, even though they completely disagree.

As you've said, you've done a number of things in your profession - writing, directing, acting. What is it about the idea of visual storytelling, be it in comic book form or movies or television, appeals to you as a creator?

Whenever I read comics, the vast majority of them didn't feel like they needed to do all the homework because they had visuals, they were in a different world. The rules of storytelling, regardless of format or genre...I just think there has to be more consistency. Good storytelling is good storytelling. When we started off, it was with silent films and it was all about visuals. It was about visual communication. You didn't need the words back then, and you'd still have these amazing stories. One of the very first films that I did was a short with no dialogue whatsoever. Coming from that point on view, you rely heavily on visuals.

By the time you start dealing with comics, you see within one block so many things are being told. I love being able to tell a story just based on seeing an image and what that image does to you. I'm very committed to bringing everything I know about storytelling and saying just because I'm doing a comic... Some people have this attitude where, just because it's a comic you don't have to justify the character, or the character doesn't have to have complications and dilemmas. You get some great visuals, but you're like, "Man those great visuals would mean so much more if you have the audience truly involved." Every time you turn that page, you're hoping that nothing bad happens to them. You see a visual of a big brawny killer and you're like, "Wow. That's a badass, and I hope my hero can survive this." And that's all coming from the visuals.

You have obviously put a lot of thought into the medium and approaching it properly. What are your thoughts thus far? Would this be a world you'd like to have an extended stay in between acting and directing?

Once I've had my cherry pop...! I'm so into this world. The huge difference from after working with Keven is that when I get a story or a concept for a story, it goes through a different process. Before, I used to think, "This would be a great movie" or "This would be a great TV show." And now there is this third thing: "Would this be better starting off as a comic?" So, there's a third eye, now, that I've started developing. It's just giving me more options for storytelling, which is, again, the thing that I love most.

Break on out and head over the comic shop this September when "25 to Life" issue #1 hits shelves.

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